A Fabled Era Ends: The Firing of Slip Madigan

On March 11, 1940, Saint Mary’s College issued the following press release:

J. Philip Murphy, chairman of the Board of Athletic Control. . . announced today that the board had decided not to renew Mr. Edward P. (“Slip”) Madigan’s contract, which will expire on March 31, 1941. Murphy stated that Norman P. (“Red”) Strader would handle the football squad in this year’s Spring training but added that Madigan’s salary rights under the contract would be respected even though Mr. Madigan will have no jurisdiction over the balance of the 1940 Spring training or the 1940 regular season. 

In short, after 19 years as head coach of the Galloping Gaels, the legendary  Slip Madigan had been “unceremoniously bounced” a year before his contract was scheduled to expire.

Although rumors had been circulating concerning Madigan’s declining health and a possible move to another college or even to the pros, the revelation of his firing came as a terrific shock to football fans across the nation. The dazed student body president of the College told a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle: “St. Mary’s without Madigan would be like St. Mary’s without the chapel.”

After being informed of his release, Madigan made a statement to reporters that seemed gracious compared to the curt notice of his termination. “It is my earnest desire,” he said, “because of my long association and love for St. Mary’s College, that this sudden and sensational announcement will have no detrimental effect upon St. Mary’s, a fine institution whose rise to prominence has been my life’s ideal.”

Nonetheless, he went on to claim that he was fired because of the personal animosity of Andrew F. Burke, a key member of the Athletic Control Board. The headline in the Oakland Tribune said it all: “I Was Fired Because of Feud: Madigan.”

What all of this seemed to show, at least to the uninformed general public, is that Saint Mary’s had acted badly in the matter of the coach’s firing, and Madigan, nobly. This was not really the case. Shortly after the announcement of Madigan’s firing, Murphy emphatically denied that the coach had been dismissed because of a vendetta. Other members of the Athletic Control Board have backed him up. Murphy went on to reveal that Saint Mary’s had offered the coach a paid leave of absence expiring in a year and gave him a week to gracefully announce his own retirement. However, Madigan refused to go along. “The board [therefore] had no alternative but to release the story,” Murphy told the press. “It is a matter of regret that Mr. Madigan’s attitude has made necessary this added statement.”

Given the high costs of Madigan’s buyout totaling $14,000 (or $221,487 in today’s value), the reasons for his firing must have been weighty. However, Brother Albert Rahill, the president at the time, resolutely refused over the years to say anything significant about the matter, although he did insist that Madigan was an honorable man who had not engaged in any financial chicanery. However, believing that “it doesn’t cost any more to go first class,” Madigan did spend money much too freely, and toward the end of his career he seemed more concerned with his business enterprises than with his coaching responsibilities.

Not many months before Madigan was fired, Don Glendon wrote an article for Collier’s
magazine, entitled “The Pied Piper of Pigskin,” in which he suggested that Madigan “never overlooks a silver dollar unless it is nailed to the floor and for this emergency he always carries a chisel and a hammer.” After the annual game with Fordham in 1936, almost all of the profits, amounting to $36,420, were turned over to Madigan for back salary rather than to the College’s creditors. The poorest school in the country now had one of its most highly paid coaches.

Perhaps the main reason Madigan was let go is that football had gotten out of hand in the late '30's and was having a deleterious effect on the College’s academic life, its moral atmosphere, and even its Catholic character. Most of the athletes were non-Catholics, a few were brutish, and several were not “fit” for college, Brother Josephus Mangan told Archbishop Mitty in 1941. In 1939, Madigan’s star halfback Mike Klotovich was dismissed from school, and at the end of the semester 14 other football players were barred from athletic competition because of poor grades.  It seems likely that the Athletic Control Board had come to agree with Brother Josephus’ conclusion that “the tail (that is, athletics) . . . wags the dog (that is, the college)—scholastically, morally and spiritually.”

Not long after being named Madigan’s successor, “Red” Strader addressed the Alumni Association. His refreshing talk was both straightforward and simple: "It's the college, not the man; it's the team, not the individual." 

A new era had surely begun. And it was probably overdue. Nonetheless, the Madigan Era was a fabled time in the school’s history, never to be forgotten for its glamour and glitz.

Read more stories from the Saint Mary's Magazine  »